Three victims in Independence Pass hostage case awarded $1.4 million

Brolin McConnell gets escorted into the Pitkin County court in Aspen in July 2016.
Jeremy Wallace/The Aspen Times archive

A District Court judge has awarded $1.4 million to three men who were held hostage at gunpoint by a delusional Colorado Springs real estate agent on Independence Pass nearly six years ago.

The amount was the maximum allowed under Colorado law for “non-economic losses” that includes emotional distress and pain suffering, though it fell short of the $2.25 million sought from Brolin McConnell by the three men.

“We’re really happy with this,” Michael Fox, the Aspen-based lawyer for the three men, said Monday. “Ultimately, whether they got $2.25 million or $1.4 million, it doesn’t matter. My clients … are just looking to close this chapter in their lives.”

Ninth Judicial District Judge John Neiley, who is based in Glenwood Springs, entered the award late Friday afternoon after a one-day civil court bench trial March 21 during which Brian Buchanan, Mark Meredith and Blake Ramelb testified about the lasting trauma McConnell inflicted on them during the incident on Lincoln Creek Road in July 2016.

McConnell did not participate in the virtual trial last week, though Neiley found that McConnell had received notice of the trial and even waited an extra 10 minutes for him to log on before beginning the proceedings.

In his ruling, Neiley wrote that the men — who were in the their early-to-mid 20s at the time — demonstrated during their testimony “that they suffered significant emotional and psychological injuries and severe emotional distress as a direct and proximate result of McConnell’s conduct.”

“He held them at gunpoint and completely terrorized them,” Neiley said. “The conduct was so outrageous in character and so extreme in degree as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency and must be regarded as atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilized community.”

Under Colorado law, the maximum allowed in nonmedical malpractice civil cases for noneconomic loss or injury is $250,000, “unless the court finds ‘justification’ by clear and convincing evidence to award a greater amount,” Neiley said in his ruling. The current cap for those maximum damages is $468,010, which he awarded to each of the three plaintiffs, because of the severity of McConnell’s conduct, according to the ruling.

Neiley declined to award more because higher amounts generally come only with loss of limbs, loss of senses “or other similar physically traumatic injuries.”

“While the court does not mean to minimize the emotional trauma suffered by the Plaintiffs, none of them suffered permanent physical injuries or disfigurement, lost a limb or suffered a gunshot wound,” Neiley said. “With appropriate therapy and counseling, there is significant hope that the emotional impacts of the incident can be ameliorated over time.”

Buchanan and Meredith first encountered McConnell’s stopped truck on Lincoln Creek Road on their way to do some bouldering and camping. McConnell pulled out two handguns, made them partially disrobe and repeatedly threatened to kill them before they were able to escape without injury.

Ramelb drove up on the scene and was also taken hostage. McConnell fired one of the guns at Ramelb’s feet and also next to his head before he, too, was able to escape without injury despite having recently had surgery on his foot.

After spending 3½ years awaiting trial in the Pitkin County Jail — which included numerous delays after he pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity and was eventually found sane — McConnell pleaded guilty in December 2019 to criminal attempt to commit first-degree kidnapping and felony menacing.

Pitkin County District Judge Chris Seldin, who said McConnell was experiencing “paranoid delusions” when he held the men hostage, sentenced him to 12 years in prison in March 2020. McConnell served less than two years before he was released on parole in January and is currently living in Texas.

Efforts to collect the $1.4 million can come in the form of garnishing wages, bank accounts or real property, Fox said.